Despite coming up on the short end of their first shootout of the season, the overriding tone was one of optimism, as the Tampa Bay Lightning produced their best effort to date, albeit in a losing cause.
By almost every statistical measurement, the Lightning outplayed, out shot and out hit the Minnesota Wild, who were playing the concluding game in a three game road trip and were attempting to run their season record to 4 wins against 0 losses.
As the contest began, the penalty box door was in almost constant motion as a combination of six penalties were called, with five of them whistled before nine minutes had expired in the period. David Koci, making his first appearance of the season for the Lightning, was flagged for the first two infractions, his second coming 10 seconds after his first penalty expired.
The Tampa Bay penalty kill unit was outstanding all evening, allowing the Minnesota power play only three shots on goal during six opportunities, including a 4 on 3 penalty kill as time expired in overtime. In total, Minnesota could generate only 3 power play shots throughout the contest.
The shorthanded unit for the Wild was almost the equal of the Lightning’s for the contest, shutting down Tampa Bay’s power play three times while allowing 6 shots on net.
The first period drew to a close with the Lightning holding a commanding edge in shots, 13 – 6, and that set the tone for the two stanzas to follow.
With the barrage of penalty calls mostly out of the way, the second period was a wide-open, end-to-end affair which featured stick-to-tape passing as each club had good opportunities to break the scoreless deadlock. As the shot totals and the chances added up, it was apparent that Lightning goalie Mike Smith and Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom would be the centerpieces of this battle.
At the 6:30 mark of the period, Mark Recchi fired a one-timer from the slot off a precise pass by Chris Gratton, but Backstrom deflected the shot into the corner. At 13:50, defenseman Matt Carle drove deep into Wild territory but his backhand shot was just wide. Two minutes later, the Lightning again applied the pressure when Vaclav Prospal unloaded a shot from the slot which Backstrom handled. Immediately after that save, Backstrom thwarted Ryan Malone’s wraparound attempt. Before the period ended, Paul Ranger and Vincent Lecavalier each produced excellent scoring opportunities but again Backstrom was equal to the challenge.
The Wild also had chances in the second period, most notably a blast from the right face-off circle off the stick of forward Craig Weller, which Smith was able to get a pad on.
The third period again featured some outstanding scoring opportunities for both teams, but the goaltenders continued to put on a show for the 15,191 fans in the St. Pete Times Forum. As regulation time ticked down, the Lightning picked up the pace in a furious attempt to net a goal. With only 23 seconds remaining in the contest, Lecavalier took a shot from in close that Backstrom got to, and then with 5 seconds to go, Malone centered the puck to Gratton, but his shot missed the net.
The Wild gained momentum at the start of overtime with several strong chances, including a point-blank shot by Eric Belanger off a Brent Burns pass from behind the net.
After their third overtime in as many games failed to break the 0-0 deadlock, shootout attempts by Jussi Jokinen, Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos came up empty while the last Minnesota shooter, NHL goal scoring leader Antti Miettinen delivered the game winner when his backhand shot flew over Smith’s shoulder and into the twine.
In gaining their third point of the season, the Lightning outshot the Wild, 32 – 21, and out hit Minnesota 30-18.
“We have to believe that if we keep playing like this, we’ll be rewarded,” Coach Barry Melrose said. “We’re being tested now. The commitment, the energy, the passion – there were so many positives tonight.”